Saturday, 28 December 2013

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown Review

As a pre-teen, I was a huge WWF wrestling fan in the early ‘90s - I had the sticker albums, a bunch of taped matches, and loads of wrestling toys and a ring (or squared circle); I loved all that crazy stuff. I left it behind when I became a teenager and never went back but I remember a lot from that time. There was a fake barber with gardening shears called Beefcake, a Scotsman in a kilt who was also in movies, and literally dozens of colourful wrestlers from hitmen to bushwhackers. Arguably the most memorable was Hulk Hogan with his handlebar mustache and yellow outfit he’d tear before his matches with “I am a real American” playing as he entered the ring - and his most memorable fight was undoubtedly his match against Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3.

It wasn’t until a few years later after watching The Princess Bride that I looked up what had happened to Andre the Giant and found out he’d died in 1993 - oddly, about the time I was at my most obsessed with wrestling - at the relatively young age of 46 in his sleep. That was the last I thought about Andre for over a decade until I read this excellent comic book on the Giant’s life by the superb Box Brown.

The book follows Andre Roussimoff’’s remarkable life as a 7ft 4in tall man, how he got into wrestling and his rise to stardom. But this is more than a catalogue of events in a life; Brown imbues the story with Andre’s personality, a voice taken from anecdotes from friends, his numerous TV appearances and some artistic licence to make reading it more enjoyable. As a child, Andre was too tall to ride the bus so had to sit in the back of a pickup to be taken to school. Brown adds little touches like Andre’s dad giving the driver a bottle of wine for the ride, and the driver making jokes about his name, Beckett, and the famous playwright. Details like these - small, almost negligible - lift up this story and make it infinitely more personal.

While wrestling in Japan, Andre sees a doctor for the first time in his life and is diagnosed with acromegaly - a condition that means that, as big as he already is, he’ll continue to grow. The extra growth would add extra pressure to his joints, bones and heart, and the doctor grimly tells Andre he’ll be dead at 40 (he was out by 6 years). To illustrate Andre’s vulnerable physical state, he once broke his ankle just getting out of bed in the morning!

And while his condition is sad, and, as Hulk Hogan points out at the start, that wherever he went, he was ridiculed for his size, this book doesn’t sentimentalise Andre’s life nor make him out to be an untouchable saint - Brown gives us the full picture of the man he was. Andre was casually racist toward his fellow wrestler Bad News Brown (though they make up before Andre’s death), he fathered a daughter and only saw her 4 times in his life, the mother finally getting him to pay for child support after years of dodging payments, and he was frequently boorish, drunk and rude to friends. During a match with One Man Gang, a wrestler he knew to be a teetotaller, he snuck a beer into the ring and poured it down the unsuspecting wrestler’s throat!  

After the filming of The Princess Bride, Rob Reiner discovers Andre’s bar tab was $40k and his lengthy drinking sessions are documented here - he reportedly drank over 100 beers in one sitting! Each of the main actors in the movie get a page with an Andre anecdote, my favourite being when Robin Wright was cold, Andre put his hand on her head, enveloping it entirely, and warming her up! Other famous moments like his Letterman appearance in ‘84 and his fight with Chuck Wepner (the boxer whose fight against Ali became the inspiration for Rocky) are also included.

Of course, the wrestling is written about the most and Brown explains the various wrestling terms so that anyone, regardless of their familiarity with it, will find the book accessible. Wrestlemania 3 was the biggest fight of Andre’s career, with the event selling 90,000 tickets, as Andre faced off against Hulk Hogan. Brown goes through the preliminaries of the fight, showing how the WWF (now the WWE, having lost a legal case with the World Wildlife Fund for the acronym) built up excitement for the match, staging a rivalry between the two wrestlers (in real life they were friends). Brown then goes through the fight, explaining how the two sold the action to the audience and how it was choreographed. Brown shows not only a strong understanding of wrestling but enlightens readers as to its machinations.

And while a common refrain from critics of wrestling is that it’s all fake, and it is, well, the wrestlers are really up there doing the heavy lifting. Hogan does lift Andre in the fight and that’s not fake, nor is the giant standing on Hogan’s back fake. More than anything this book shows that you do need to be in good shape to do half of what these guys do in the ring. One of my favourite scenes in this book is when Andre’s in a bar drinking and a coupla drunks talk smack about how wrestling is fake and that wrestlers are pussies, then run away when Andre stands up in front of them. He chases them out and tips over their car - with them inside, terrified - single-handedly!

Box Brown has created a wonderful book about the life of one of wrestling’s greatest, Andre the Giant, as well as a great book on wrestling itself. It’s well written and drawn in Brown’s understated yet delightful illustration style, and by turns informative, entertaining, real and heartfelt. If you’re unfamiliar with the guy’s work, check out his comics on his website which are absolutely terrific.

The book didn’t bring me back to wrestling but it did make me look up tons of wrestling matches from the ‘80s and ‘90s on Youtube which took me back to when I was a kid and in awe of wrestlers like Andre and Hogan. Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is a fantastic comic by an enormously talented cartoonist. Whether or not you enjoy wrestling, this is a thoroughly engrossing book that’s well worth reading.

Andre the Giant

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